Now that we’re so familiar with tapas that even The Onion makes jokes about them, maybe izakaya will finally proliferate.
They sure should.
They’re a Japanese small-plate approach, where you sit down, order a beer, then order a few things, then a few things more. (As with sushi, it’s best to begin with milder dishes, then ramp up the intensity of flavors as you go.) Food comes to the table when it’s ready, and you can cap off your meal with a bowl of ramen (or other noodles) or a rice-based dish.
It’s a time-honored concept (deservedly so), though it’s inconsistently executed at Yama Izakaya, whose big-sibling restaurant, Yama Asian Fusion, is in the SouthPark area.
We had some fine tidbits at the izakaya, notably the okonomiyaki (a savory pancake that uses cabbage), some of the yakitori (spicy cumin lamb skewers; I’ll have shishito pepper next); steamed buns with pork belly; and a creative “tuna salad” in which scored, seared slices encircled a bite’s worth of fresh greens.
Tonkotsu ramen fared well, too: There’s an almost sticky creaminess to tonkotsu, or pork-bone-based, broth, producing a particularly filling version of the dish. You can choose shoyu (soy sauce/vegetarian), miso or shio (salt) broths instead; each comes with the same additions, including chashu (simmered pork) and soft-cooked egg (ramen fans know this as ajitsuke tamago). My egg had gone a bit over, but flavors overall were good.
We had decided misses, too: wan hamachi (flavorless slices of yellowtail in a watery ponzu studded with jalapeno rings, garnished with a tired slice of lime); bland beef negimaki (slices wrapped around scallion and asparagus); and daily-special duck negi: one skewer, with one good chunk of meat edged beautifully with fat and one nearly all fat.
In between were ika sugatayaki (grilled whole squid with nice texture, but on the small side, with a few edges overcooked), lamb chop “lollipops” with only a core of rareness, and kalbi, the Korean barbecue-style short rib cut into thin slices with tough spots, and difficult to eat.
Service was similarly on-and-off, though attentive: A host checked on us one night and discovered we hadn’t heard any of the specials. (We didn’t hear about them on the second visit, either – a shame, since they’re some of the best stuff. Be sure to ask.) He went through them expertly, made solid recommendations and answered a few detailed questions with enthusiasm. Perfect.
The place is small, tucked next door to Bistro La Bon on Central Avenue, in the Family Dollar shopping center, and tends to the dark. (Black tableware is artful, but given the lighting, doesn’t always show the food to best advantage.)
Yama lists a handful of lesser-known Japanese beers (as in: other than Asahi and Sapporo!). These include several from Hitachino Nest, from an IPA to the XH, a Belgian strong ale that ages in sake barrels.
Both the high-end sake by-the-glass (or carafe or bottle) list and the more affordable bottle (note ounce counts) are divided by region, with descriptions.
These are marvelous (and integral) parts of the izakaya experience. Bringing other aspects up to par will lift Yama.
Japanese tidbits in quiet setting.
1324 Central Ave.; 704-910-6387; www.yamaizakaya.com.
HITS: A refreshing beer and sake lineup; a nicely rich tonkatsu ramen, and an interesting cumin-spiced lamb skewer.
MISSES: Uneven kitchen performance, flavorless hamachi, variations in what servers know and share.
HOURS: 5 p.m.-midnight Sunday and Tuesday-Thursday, to 1:30 a.m. Friday-Saturday.
INSPECTION SCORE: 97 Jan. 29.
☆☆☆☆= excellent; ☆☆☆= good;☆☆= fair;☆= poor